One of the world's most popular tunes was first played by fairies on a riverbank
There are so many wonderful things to do and places to see on our own doorstep that are often bypassed for more distant destinations!
One of Roamer’s regular joys is getting out and about in the company of News Letter readers who are keen to share local stories at scenic places where history happened.
It seems like yesterday, on a gloriously sunny Friday afternoon in May 2013, when Christopher Wilson showed me around Limavady.
I shared some of his intriguing accounts here, about Mullagh Hill, famous for a historic public meeting that St Columbkille held there in 575AD.
We visited the large, glistening, water-washed boulders on the River Roe where a mythological hound belonging to an O’Cahan clan chief leaped the river – ‘Leim an Mhadaidh’ meaning ‘leap of the dog’ – later anglicised to Limavady.
Amongst many other highlights on Christopher’s tour was the house where one of the world’s best-known songs was first written down.
More about the song and the O’Cahan clan in a moment, but with Saint Patrick’s Day approaching next weekend, regular contributor Mitchell Smyth, formerly from Ballycastle, emailed a nostalgic note to Roamer from his home in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada.
Mitchell, a journalist who worked for the News Letter many years ago, told me he only discovered the background to today’s story when he researched it in Limavady and Dungiven last year.
He’s a prolific travel writer, and whether you’re acquainted with some or all of Mitchell’s account here today, it’s shortly appearing in the prestigious Toronto Sun so we’ve got it first!
The rest of today’s page is his:
Nothing says ‘Ireland’ like St Patrick, Guinness and Danny Boy.
There’ll doubtlessly be endless pints of Guinness drunk on 17th March, when the Irish, and the wannabee Irish, all over the world, celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
Countless numbers of people will also sing Danny Boy!
They’ll all know it as a mournful love song but in Limavady they know it as a deeply-moving melody of pain and suffering and loss, a loss going back three centuries before a lyricist put words to the traditional Irish air.
Long, long before it was written down, the tune for Danny Boy – The Londonderry Air – was called O’Cahan’s Lament.
And for good reason, for it was a bitter lament for a lost ‘kingdom’ – the land of the O’Cahan clan, which since the 12th century had ruled most of what is now Co Londonderry.
During the plantation of Ulster in the 1600s Sir Thomas Phillips, a favourite of King James I, was given the O’Cahan land “to accommodate Londoners”.
(The O’Cahans, of course, weren’t asked if that was okay!)
Which brings us to O’Cahan’s Lament.
As the story goes, around that time the O’Cahan chieftain, Rory Dall, gave a party at his castle (the site is in the present Roe Valley Country Park), which the Londoners hadn’t yet seized.
He got a little drunk, fell asleep on the bank of the River Roe, and was awakened by what he later swore were fairies playing a beautiful, haunting tune.
It seemed to him that the melody reflected the pain over his clan’s impending loss of territory and culture at the hands of the English.
He played it on his harp and it became known as O’Cahan’s Lament.
Down through the ages it was played by pipers, fiddlers and harpists all over Ulster until, in 1851, Limavady schoolteacher Jane Ross heard blind fiddler Jimmy McCurry playing it outside her house.
A blue plaque on number 51 in Limavady’s Main Street records that this was the home of Jane Ross, who paid the fiddler two shillings for permission to write down the tune.
She sent her manuscript to a magazine which published the tune as The Londonderry Air.
Many lyrics were written for it in the 19th century, but it was Danny Boy, written by an Englishman, Frederick Weatherly, in 1910 that became the ballad that bewitched the world.
Rory Dall O’Cahan didn’t know what he was starting when (with the help of the fairies?) he first lifted his harp to strum the melody.
Elvis Presley called it “music written by the angels,” (perhaps he didn’t believe in fairies) and the melody was played at his funeral in August 1977.
Apart from ‘the king’ the ballad has been recorded by a complete Who’s Who of musical greats and is reportedly one of the three most performed songs in the world.
(The other two are thought to be Happy Birthday to You and White Christmas.)
Though no one knows the whereabouts of “you must go and I must bide” – and the song gives no clues – along with O’Cahan’s riverbank and Jane Ross’s house there are many local reminders of the iconic anthem.
A painted slogan above the door of the Corner Bar in Limavady reads “Oh Danny Boy, the pints, the pints are calling,” a sly nod to the first line of the ballad where “the pipes, the pipes are calling”.
Jane Ross is pictured on a bar mural.
In Dungiven Castle Park, 15 kilometres from Limavady, a large stone sculpture of a harp honours Rory Dall O’Cahan and road signs welcoming visitors to Limavady hail the town as the song’s home.
And there’s a stone sculpture engraved with the words and part of the score outside the Limavady Arts and Culture Centre – see www.roevalleyarts.com.